On a Wing and a . . .
Not long ago, a group of 66 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of
Defense Leon Panetta, urging him to issue guidance to counter an "alarming
pattern of attacks on faith" in the U.S. Air Force. This was a reaction to U.S.
Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz’s recent actions removing Latin
references to God in unit patches, nixing Biblically-based ethical arguments
used in missile training, removing Bibles from Air Force inns and barring
commanders from informing airmen about programs available through base chapels.
General Schwartz seems to have been responding to complaints from the Military
Religious Freedom Foundation, a religious watchdog group. After finding Biblical
references in a course on ethics taught to airmen preparing them for assignments
to missile silos, the group sent the information to Truth-out.org, which posted
it on their website.
Historically, references to God have been common in in the Air Force. Robert Lee
Scott, Jr.’s account of flying in the China-Burma Theater during World War II,
"God Is My Co-pilot," included a foreword by Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault, chief
of the Flying Tigers. The concluding line of "High Flight," a poem by pilot-poet
Gillespie Magee, killed in action three days after the Japanese bombed Pearl
Harbor, concludes, "I’ve trod the high un-trespassed sanctity of space, put out
my hand and touched the face of God." Such references, along with references to
flying "on a wing and a prayer," have long been integral Air Force culture. The
chapel at Offutt Air Force Base, formerly the Headquarters of the Strategic Air
Command (SAC), includes an airman standing in front of a nuclear mushroom cloud.
Two years into my Air Force career, I returned from my first assignment as an
intelligence officer in Southeast Asia completely disillusioned. During my tour
as a briefing officer charged with keeping the major general in charge of air
operations in Laos informed on intelligence matters, I routinely briefed items
related to the unauthorized "protective reaction" strikes conducted against
targets in North Vietnam’s southern panhandle, the secret bombing of Laos, and
worse, I forwarded on a litany of lies wrapped around inflated figures on
supposed results of bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail. So much for "We will not lie,
cheat or steal or tolerate among us those who do."
My next assignment was as a nuclear targeting officer at SAC’s 544th Strategic
Reconnaissance Wing, where I served on a team charged with targeting Soviet and
East European defensive fighter bases. We routinely targeted one to three
nuclear warheads on selective bases to pave "corridors" through which B-52
bombers could safely pass to obliterate military-industrial targets from Moscow
to Sverdlovsk, Vorkuta to Volgograd. We wrote the script for Armageddon.
Although I didn’t go to church much, my strict Calvinist upbringing ingrained in
me a faith that understood this isn’t the way the world ends. I knew a God
bigger than SAC and the Soviet strategic forces combined. Furthermore, planning
the deaths of millions was abstract. We planned to kill bases, not people.
From 1979 to 1981, I taught history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where cadets
looked forward to a future when they could fly and fight. Their innocent bravado
bespoke "killing" MiGs, tanks, trucks, missile sites and "crispy-crittering"
enemy troops. The basic world military history course required of all freshmen
dwelt on the nature and efficacy of killing. Students read Michael Shaara’s
Civil War novel "Killer Angels" and the post-Great War classic by Erich
Remarque, "All Quiet on the Western Front." The point was that all wars are
quintessentially human endeavors. It’s impossible to kill inanimate objects like
MiGs, tanks, trucks and missile sites. But we do kill people. To make "crispy
crittering" easier, we noted, we dehumanize the enemy with terms like "Japs,"
"Dinks," "Gomers," "Krauts," "Huns," "Injuns," "Rebs" and "Yanks." We noted the
Nazis refereed to the genocide of Jews as "evacuation" and the murder of the
mentally and physically handicapped, homosexuals, and other "inferiors" as
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted that with God out of the equation,
almost anything becomes possible. Godlessness elevates human ideas, all of which
are flawed, some so bad as to result in German fascism and Soviet communism. A
generation later, the Star Wars trilogy issued from the universal "Force" of
Air power is intrinsically awesome, involving—as it does—death from above, out
of the blue. Its technological handmaiden flows from humanity’s greatest
intellectual accomplishments. When absent God, human advancement—whether
ideological, political, philosophical or technological—reflects our intrinsic
nature, which is evil. Better we fly with a wing and a prayer.
— Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East &
terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A
retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American
and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to
2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies
Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City
College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and
international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.
© 2012 by The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The views &
expressed herein may, but do not necessarily, reflect the views of Grove City
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